I have watched through a window a World that is fallen,
The mating and malice of men and beasts,
The corporate greed of quiet vegetation,
And the homesick little obstinate sobs
Of things thrown into being.
I would gladly forget; let us go quickly.
– Rosetta, The Age of Anxiety
I started reading Auden in earnest last year, but my relationship with him goes back some years ago, when I discovered Stravinsky’s Neoclassical opera, The Rake’s Progress. Auden co-wrote the libretto with Chester Kallman. It’s one of my favourites, celebrating while also skewering baroque and classical opera. And when do you often get to see a great composer pair up with a major English poet? Even before I was really familiar with Auden, the idea of it struck the literature/music geek in me as a lot of fun.
Auden, like T.S. Eliot and C.S. Lewis, found himself backing away from modernity and returning to Christianity in the middle of his life. As a result, as Alan Jacobs put it, “Christianity appears as the missing piece of the puzzle [in his work], the answer to a question no one thought to ask.”
In my own reading, he acts as a sort of sequel to Rainer Maria Rilke, whom I read a fair amount of during my undergrad years. There is a shadow-groping for spiritual communion in Rilke; he was unable to invoke the aid of the muses in his Duino Elegies, but heard a statue of Apollo tell him to change his life. In Auden that command drops its paganism and falls into sharper relief.
He also, being kind of gay, struggled quite a lot with his sexuality and with loneliness. That, I think, manifests itself in the forlornness of some of his verse.
There is something to be said about the relationship of unfulfilled desire to art. I think it was Camille Paglia who said that the artistic output of same-sex attracted men has declined in quality, post-sexual revolution, because part of what drove it was the need to sublimate desires that there was no outlet for. It may seem kind of peculiar, but I do take a kind of consolation in the idea that my commitment to celibacy may actually be enhancing my creativity.
But anyhow, the point is perhaps generalizable: because we all are, gay or straight, conditioned these days to simply use up our eros in sex, it is to a large extent absent in our cultural pursuits. That is a weird sort of apologia for the traditional sexual ethic which will likely only appeal to someone like yours truly.